Learn About Whales

Whales are the largest species of animal alive today, and the Blue Whale is the largest known animal ever to have lived on earth. Despite their size, whales are extremely gentle and highly intelligent.

Though they live in the sea, whales are mammals, not fish, and so cannot breath underwater. Their need to surface for air is the source of whales' most recognized feature - the expulsion of old air through their blowholes and the resulting massive spray.

Many whales will take the opportunity provided by the need to get oxygen to play at the water's surface. This behavior manifests itself as breaching and tale slapping, which in turn provides a great show for observing humans. After taking in a breath of fresh air - also through their blowholes - some whales can then hold their breath underwater for up to two hours.

As mammals, whales also give birth to fully developed offspring, rather than laying eggs, and then feeding those young with a thick toothpaste-consistency milk from mammary glands. The nursing phase usually lasts more than one year, producing a very strong bond between whale calves and their mothers. Whale calves can often be observed at winter whale watching destinations in southern California and the Caribbean.

Another interesting characteristic of whales is their use of lyrical sounds, or songs, to communicate with each other. Due to their enormous size and power, whales can sing extremely loud, and their songs can often be heard from miles away.

Life expectancy for whales ranges from 30 years to 90 years depending on the species, and some whales have been documenting as living well over a century.

Whales are often divided into two groups: those with teeth, and those that have a hair-like substance called baleen instead of teeth.

Most of the common, and all of the largest whale species are baleen whales, which filter plankton, krill and small schooling fish through the sieve-like baleen in their upper jaws as they take massive gulps of sea water.

Toothed whales, the most prominent of which are sperm whales and orca whales (popularly known as killer whales), prey in a more normal fashion on larger fish, squid and other marine mammals.

Whale species that feed in shallower waters near the shore, and are therefore the most easily sighted during whale watching tours, include humpback whales, gray whales, fin whales, minke whales and orcas. Blue whales, sperm whales and the very endangered North Atlantic Right Whale are also often, though less frequently sighted.

While there is a large variety of whales that can be observed, there is little question that the most exciting species to encounter, especially for those who have come for a good show, is the Humpback Whale. Humpbacks are naturally curious, and will often interact directly with whale watching tour boats and their passengers.

It is not uncommon for humpbacks to come very close to whale watching tour boats to do a little "people watching" and wave to passengers with their unusually long pectoral fins.

Even when they are not directly interacting with boats and passengers, humpbacks continue to provide a great show with their long melodic mating songs, acrobatic breaching and spectacular "bubble-netting" feeding technique, during which several humpbacks will come together and blow air through their blowholes in order to herd schools of small fish into a tight ball through which the whales then plunge.

As the ocean's most ubiquitous whale species, humpbacks can be found at just about every major whale watching destination.

Whales are a magnificent species of animal that we are only starting to understand. Their high intelligence, gentle nature, curiosity and sheer size leaves little doubt as to why whale watching


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